The UK government is considering approving a giant new oil and gas field in the North Sea, despite warnings from energy economists and climate scientists that the world cannot afford to develop new fossil fuel projects.
The Rosebank oil field, which could produce up to 500 million barrels of oil over its lifetime, has put ministers on a collision course with climate activists. Ministers insist the government will stick to its carbon budgets while securing the UK’s energy supply and creating jobs and investment. But there are few clear answers to the questions in this debate.
Can the UK meet its climate targets?
Campaigners from Uplift, which opposes further drilling in the North Sea, warned that emissions from drilling for oil and gas from the Rosebank field would exceed targets set for the oil and gas sector by official independent climate advisers to the government, the Climate Change Committee (CCC). ).
This does not necessarily mean that the UK would bust its carbon budgets, which are not officially set for every sector of the economy. But it would require deeper cuts from other areas. The CCC itself has said that it is “not clear” whether the UK should explore for new oil.
In a letter to the trade secretary last year, Lord Deben, CCC chairman, said the committee had been unable to establish the net impact on global emissions of new North Sea oil and gas projects. The UK will remain a net importer of fossil fuels “for the foreseeable future”, he added, meaning there could be an advantage for domestic oil and gas over imports, which often have a higher carbon footprint.
Still, ministers should use policies that reduce demand for fossil fuels to control imports and apply “strict” tests to new domestic production with “a presumption against exploration,” he said.
How much oil and gas do we really need?
The UK remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels and consumed around 61 million tonnes of oil and 77 billion cubic meters of gas last year to meet around three-quarters of the UK’s total energy demand. .
This is because 24 million UK households still rely on gas boilers for heating and hot water and 32 million vehicles rely on petrol or diesel for fuel. In addition, 42% of the UK’s electricity is generated by gas-fired plants.
At the same time, the reserves of the North Sea are in sharp decline. North Sea oil and gas production is on track to fall from just over 90.3 million tonnes of oil equivalent in 2019 to just over 46.3 million over the next five years, according to Authority data. of the North Sea Transition.
Mike Tholen, director of Offshore Energies UK, formerly known as Oil and Gas UK, said the “long-term natural decline” of the North Sea means UK oil and gas production will never increase. But further exploration would still be needed to prevent the industry from going into free fall, which could dramatically increase the UK’s reliance on imports and deal a hit to jobs and the economy.
Why not import fossil fuels instead?
After the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, governments across Europe have become more cautious about relying on foreign countries for energy supplies.
The UK is already a net importer of energy, purchasing gas via pipelines from Norway and continental Europe and receiving shipments of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar and the US. However, many import sources are more polluting than oil and gas produced in the North Sea.
LNG shipments are particularly carbon intensive, with a carbon footprint for deliveries from the US more than six times greater than extraction from the North Sea. LNG imported from Qatar is three times the carbon footprint.
Norway remains the exception: its gas production has lower emissions intensity than most countries, including the UK, due to a tough stance on gas flaring and platforms powered by clean electricity. It can also transport most of its UK gas exports via pipeline, which helps save emissions compared to condensing, cooling and shipping cargo. However, the main gas pipeline to the UK is already running at full capacity and its largest gas field is in decline, so a large increase in imports is not an option.
What is the best way to balance the UK’s need for fossil fuels with climate responsibilities?
In an otherwise thorny debate, marked by contradictory claims and counterclaims, there is one thing all sides can agree on: the UK must do more to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.
Coping with growing demand for oil and gas, the UK government would face an easier task of limiting new exploration and production in the North Sea, without the risk of an “energy gap” or spiraling market prices. .
Experts believe that government policies designed to speed up the rollout of electric vehicles and heat pumps must be accompanied by ambitious plans to prepare the power grid for a car charger boom. Measures are also required to improve the energy efficiency of houses and factories with better insulation.
Such changes would require billions of pounds in government spending. But the answer could be found in the North Sea itself. The Office for Budgetary Responsibility has forecast that oil and gas revenue will reach £11bn in 2022-23, a sharp increase on revenue of around £300m two years earlier, meaning that it could be the perfect time for North Sea oil revenues to go to work. helping to reduce Britain’s need for new North Sea projects in the future.